The Black Hole of Pakistan

Are billions of dollars of U.S. aid going to waste?

Critics of Washington’s largesse to Pakistan — totaling roughly $18 billion dollars in civilian and military aid since 9/11 — are quick to point out that Pakistanis still have a worryingly low opinion of the United States. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 64 percent of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy. Over the past five years, Pakistan has been labeled the “front line” of the war on terror, and many media reports and polls have painted a portrait of a Pakistani public hostile to the West. Reports of Pakistan’s alleged “trust deficit” seem to have had a dual effect. Some Western officials have wanted to reverse the tide by extending largesse to Pakistan, but others have been discouraged from trying to shovel additional billions of dollars just to earn the good graces of the Pakistani public.

Both influences were evident in the response to yet another natural disaster, the unprecedented flooding this year that affected nearly 18 million Pakistanis. The world did organize millions of dollars in aid, but efforts to muster a grander gesture were undermined by a nagging question: Why bother with humanitarian aid if you have no chance of winning the hearts and minds of the recipients?

Encouragingly, new research shows that assistance indeed makes a difference in swaying public opinion in Pakistan — overwhelmingly so, in fact. One need only consider the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Pakistani Kashmir on Oct. 8, 2005.

More than 70,000 people died, and 2.4 million people lost their homes in that tragedy. The forecast was grim: The impending winter threatened another round of illness and death for households without shelter. Fortunately, the world responded. Within hours, the United States offered unconditional assistance, and volunteer groups and multilateral organizations rushed to the affected regions. By December, the world had committed a record $5 billion to help Pakistan recover from this catastrophe. Thanks in part to an unusually mild winter, the death toll, enormous as it was, was lower than it might otherwise have been. Today, as the earthquake’s fifth anniversary approaches, most people in the affected regions — mainly in Pakistani Kashmir — live in new homes, the children are back at school, and infrastructure has been repaired and improved.

Clearly, the aid saved lives and helped the region recover. But did it really change hearts and minds? To answer that question, I went to the earthquake-affected region with Tahir Andrabi of Pomona College in the summer of 2009 to study how households had coped. With our research team, we visited 28,000 families in 126 mountain villages selected at random from among the districts hardest hit by the earthquake.

Our survey was guided by several simple questions: Could the earthquake victims name the organizations and groups that helped them in the first three critical months after the earthquake? Had their trust and their belief in the kindness and helpfulness of foreigners and locals changed since the earthquake? How about their belief in the ability of people from different countries and religions to work together?

Our results unequivocally show that the humanitarian assistance these households received during those crucial first three months had a lasting impact on their attitude toward foreigners. We documented that households that lived close to the earthquake’s fault line — and were therefore more affected by it — are far more likely to trust foreigners today.

The numbers could hardly be clearer: 24 percent of households reported receiving help from foreigners or foreign organizations — the second-largest group of aid providers after the Pakistani Army (by contrast, only 1 percent reported receiving assistance from a militant group). Seventy percent of households living next to the fault line trust foreigners, but the numbers go down sharply to less than 30 percent just 40 kilometers away from the fault line.

The results suggest Pakistan’s “trust deficit” is less caused by deep-rooted beliefs and preferences, nonlocal events such as drone attacks on the Afghan border, or U.S. policy toward Israel. It’s human interactions that change attitudes, and their effects are long term.

It would certainly be difficult to interpret our data in any other way. Could it be that the increase in trust reflected a generic increase in trust after a disaster? If so, we should have found an increase in trust toward all groups, not just toward foreigners. But we found that there was no increase in trust in local populations, which remained very low regardless how far households lived from the earthquake fault line. Could it be that the increase in trust reflected greater aid in general, rather than foreign assistance? But we found that assistance from local organizations didn’t correlate with greater trust toward foreigners — it was only foreign assistance that made a difference in that respect.

What do these results mean for policy today? On the one hand, we can be sure that humanitarian assistance can change the Pakistani population’s attitude toward foreigners. Indeed, the gains are large and long lasting and remain robust despite the drone attacks and numerous other controversies that have heightened tensions between the governments of Pakistan and the United States.

On the other hand, our survey also shows that the manner in which assistance is delivered matters greatly. The Pakistanis who received aid didn’t believe there were any strategic motives at play: People overwhelmingly believed that this was assistance offered in the spirit of humanity, rather than a transaction intended to buy hearts and minds. Had the recipients sensed more cynical motives, their positive opinions of foreigners might have been dampened — if not reversed.

Perhaps, then, the truth about the West’s relationship to the Pakistani people is at root paradoxical: Namely, that it’s easiest for Westerners to win hearts and minds only when that’s not what they’re explicitly setting out to do.

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